Live Action’s act: a critique
by Christopher O. Tollefsen | February 25, 2011
At the beginning of February US pro-life group, Live Action, released a video of one of its "sting" operations at a Planned Parenthood clinic, revealing the manager's willingness to assist two people acting as a pimp and a prostitute in sex trafficking of underage girls. Amongst other things, this sparked a passionate debate about the morality of lying. Some of this debate has taken place on the Public Discourse website, from which we draw this critique by Christopher Tollefsen of the Live Action tactics and, in the accompanying article on our site, a defence by Christopher Kaczor. The articles are republished with permission.
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The pro-life movement is at an advantage over its pro-choice opposition in the struggle over the value of unborn human life for two simple reasons: truth and love.
Truth, because the pro-life movement is founded on a set of scientific facts about unborn human beings. The zygote, the embryo, the fetus: all are members of the species homo sapiens, individual human beings just as much as any reader, or the author, of this article. On this truth, developmental biology has converged with remarkable unanimity, and efforts to obscure this by referring to unborn human beings as “clumps of cells,” and “tissue,” or as merely “embryos” and “fetuses,” are bound to fail.
Love, because the pro-life movement is founded on an ethical claim: that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental form of respect. All deserve to be treated as equal in their humanity and dignity. Love and respect for all human beings are, like the truths of biology previously mentioned, lessons learned over a long time, and honored all too often in the breach rather than the observance. Yet these are moral truths that the pro-life movement strives to bring to the minds and hearts of all who consider the worth of unborn human life.
Even those who recognize these facts about the pro-life movement might be hesitant to state their corollary: that the so-called pro-choice movement is premised on a lie and—despite the unquestioned good intentions of its members and supporters— is opposed to love. In this connection, the startling videos from Lila Rose’s Live Action group are highly telling. In them, Planned Parenthood workers are shown as willing to facilitate abortions for minors without parental consent, and, perhaps even more damningly, as willing to overlook sex trafficking and statutory rape. It is no exaggeration to say that the corruption in Planned Parenthood’s rank and file merely reflects the profound moral error at the core of an organization that must deny truth and love so as to destroy life.
Planned Parenthood’s very mission infects its practice, revealing it to be a parody of a real medical organization. A willingness to help all in need, and to protect patients’ privacy and confidentiality, are important parts of the practice of medicine. Yet these virtues are perverted by employees willing to overlook crimes, such as sex trafficking, that are among the most grievous harms that can be inflicted upon women. By trying to enable a pimp to get his underage prostitutes medical care for venereal diseases, the New Jersey Planned Parenthood worker, subsequently fired, showed herself unable to distinguish between providing medical help, and aiding in the systematic abuse of women.
The worker’s shady ethics reflect the confusion of an organization that persistently and deliberately conflates killing and care. In its continuing propaganda onslaught, Planned Parenthood passes up no opportunity to identify its purpose as “reproductive health.” Yet the provision of abortion is clearly not a form of health care, reproductive or otherwise. Indeed, it is the very opposite. Even the provision of birth control, arguments about its morality aside, does not rectify any illness or pathology, nor does it solve any genuine health need. It is undeniably good that Live Action’s videos have brought attention to this facet of Planned Parenthood’s existence.
Live Action has done the further great service of shining light on the sources of Planned Parenthood’s funding. Currently, Planned Parenthood receives approximately 350 million dollars a year from the federal government. But a combination of changes in the House of Representatives after the 2010 elections, and the effects of the Live Action videos, has led to calls to defund Planned Parenthood. These calls are long overdue, and should be heeded immediately. Planned Parenthood does not contribute to the medical common good, but to its opposite; and its mission and activities are plainly at odds with the deepest conscientious moral judgments of a great many of the American people. Our tax dollars rightly go to such essential projects as defense of the realm and, as I have argued in Public Discourse before, support of the needs of citizens who are incapable of caring for themselves. They should not go to any provider of abortion services, even if the revenue streams—tax dollars and private monies—are artificially kept separate.
Yet for all the good that may come of these videos, the way in which Live Action has made its mark is itself extremely troubling, for it is predicated on a form of falsity, which is exercised in an unloving way. Promising and welcome as the effects of these videos might be, they represent a real and dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement itself by endangering the pro-life movement’s commitment to its ideals of love and truth.
It is tempting to refer to the “pimp” character in Live Action’s videos as an “actor.” But this is misleading. Actors perform for willing and aware audiences who realize they are watching a fiction. The “pimp,” rather, lied, repeatedly and pervasively, in his conversation with the Planned Parenthood worker: he presented himself as other than he truly was, and his purpose in doing so was clearly to deceive.
In so presenting himself, the “pimp,” and all those who abetted him, did damage to his own integrity, creating for himself an appearance in the world deliberately at odds with his inner self. But integrity—a unity of one’s acting self in all its aspects—is a great good, and we destroy that unity in a lie only at a great cost to our wellbeing (this cost is recognized in feelings of guilt and in our attempts to ensure that we do not present a false face to the world).
Of course, the makers of the Live Action video could argue that the end—the good sought—justified a morally problematic means. But such a form of argument is a centerpiece of those arguments for abortion which acknowledge the “special respect and value” owed the unborn child, but which still justify his or her destruction for the sake of the consequences. “Do no evil that good may come about” should be central to the pro-life movement’s ethos.
Nor can it be said that Live Action’s behavior towards the Planned Parenthood workers was loving. Under most circumstances, to speak the truth to another just is a demand of love. But under all circumstances, to seek to deceive is to create a relationship with another based on falsity, and this seems inevitably to be unloving. While often undesired, it is a paradigmatically loving thing to do to make known to another the moral wrongness of what they are doing. Indeed, those who protest and pray outside abortion clinics are acting lovingly in speaking the truth. But to encourage wrongdoing through falsity does no good for the deceived agent.
So, while the increased scrutiny of Planned Parenthood is a good thing, and will conceivably lead to the even greater good of a general defunding of this morally bankrupt organization, I can take no joy in Live Action’s approach. They seem to have “fought fire with fire,” combating deceit and lack of charity with more of the same. The pro-life movement must be better than that, always, and it must be willing to engage in self-criticism when it fails to meet its own exacting standards.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.
Copyright 2011 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.